MICHIGAN — Astudent magazine editor said he is considering his legal options after schoolofficials censored content in a teen pregnancy story that ran earlier thismonth.
”We know it’s censorship,” said ZaneMcMillin, editor in chief of The Comets’ Tale, an award winning magazine at Grand Ledge High School. ”I feelthe need to pursue action against them. Now they think they can get away withit.”
McMillin said administrators removed telephone numbers ofpregnancy counseling and abortion providing groups and changed a summary ofMichigan law dealing with abortion. The information was supposed to runalongside a story on teen pregnancy and abortion in the May 3 issue of themagazine.
Principal Richard Pochert said school officials removedthe telephone numbers and changed the abortion law summary to comply withMichigan law. He said school policy gives him the ability to edit themagazine.
”All material has to have prior approval of thefaculty adviser and the school principal,” Pochert said. ”There arestrict limitations on what schools can do regarding the dissemination ofinformation on agencies that perform or make referrals forabortion.”
Pochert said if he allowed the student newspaper toprint the abortion and pregnancy groups’ telephone numbers, the schoolwould have been out of compliance with state law. Because Pochert said thepublication is ”school sponsored,” he said it is a representation ofthe high school and the public school system as a whole.
”Onone side, that may be viewed as censoring,” he said. ”I view it ascomplying with Michigan law.”
But Jane Briggs-Bunting, anattorney who has been advising McMillan, said the principal’sinterpretation of the law is ”nonsense.”
”There isa prohibition in Michigan of teaching about abortion in class, but a newspaperis not the curriculum of the school,” she said. ”The phone numbersthey censored were from literature that the students got from the counselingcenter office in the building.”
Briggs-Bunting, who is also thedirector of the journalism school at Michigan State University, questionedadministrators’ right to censor a magazine which students have had controlover in the past.
”This newspaper is a limited public forum andhas not been subject to prior review in more than 24 years,”
Briggs-Bunting said. ”They never pulled this sort of stuff at this schooldistrict before.”
Although there may be a board policy thatsays administrators have final responsibility for content, ”that’sabsolutely not what was being practiced, and what continues to be practicedthroughout this situation,” Briggs-Bunting said.
She said whenschool administrators interfere in a publication’s editorial process, theyopen themselves up to liability for what is published. But when the decisionsare left up to the students, the students are held responsible for theirdecisions.
Briggs-Bunting said Pochert ordered faculty adviser JeremyVan Hof to turn over The Comets’ Tale for prior review at the threat ofhis job.
”It’s a classic case of an adviser being putbetween a rock and a hard place,” she said. ”What the schooldistrict has done is extorted the students because of their loyalty to a goodteacher.”
Van Hof said in an e-mail that he submitted the teenpregnancy story to administrators as a ”professionalcourtesy.”
”Ninety-nine percent of the stories thenewspaper runs are not submitted for prior review,” Van Hof said. ”Itold the building administrators that this story was going to run. I had done sowith other controversial stories in the past, simply to give the main office aheads-up so they would not be blindsided if any parents or students were tocomplain about the article.”
Van Hof declined to comment on whohas final control over the magazine or if the magazine had been edited byadministrators in the past.
Pochert said although he does not reviewevery issue of the magazine, he expects Van Hof to alert him of any story thatcould elicit a reaction from the community. He said he would be sitting downwith Van Hof to establish a more clear prior review policy.
”Ibelieve very much in the First Amendment right and the freedom of thepress,” Pochert said. ”I also know there are things that studentscan put in a paper that might not be in compliance with the law or suitable fora school sponsored publication.
”While I understand theirpassion for freedom of the press, they also got a lesson: the pressdoesn’t just print anything and everything. It has to go through extensivechecking and be approved … by those people that own the publication. I dobelieve the students are given a lot of support and encouragement to look attough issues, but they also have to understand when they explore those toughissues, those are going to be more closely scrutinized at every level,especially when it concerns the public.”
Briggs-Bunting had adifferent take: ”We’re suppose to be building the next generationfor democracy. How do we do that when we are censoring them right and left? Idon’t believe the principal is a certified journalism teacher, and Idon’t think he should be making decisions about what is good journalismand what is not.
”It’s a sad day for Grand Ledge schoolsand a blot on that principal’s record.”
As for McMillan,the student editor, he feels like he was treated like ”an ignorantteenager” and a ”stupid student” throughout thesituation.
”They went behind our backs, twisted ouradviser’s arm and required us to give them a copy of the story,”
McMillin said. ”I feel I’ve been stifled. I feel that my personalfreedom of press and speech rights have been violated.
”And there’s always going to be that lingering fear now.”